As Simon Cowell’s ‘Red or Black?’ approaches its end, the viewing figures tell an interesting story. The nosedive from its inaugural 6.4m audience to 4.47m on Sunday was splashed gleefully all over the press and the show was proclaimed to be Cowell’s first failure (certainly not true: remember Rock Rivals? Battle of The Stars? Of course you don’t, but that’s because Simon knows his stuff about publicity).
The show that was supposed to do for Saturday night entertainment what the X Factor did for the talent show format (read: play a quick and decisive round of ‘monopoly’) was looking like a total turkey- which ITV apparently spotted when they shelved the project first time around in 2003.
Then, on Monday, this business with first winner Nathan Hageman and his penchant for wifebeating went nuclear. The Sun got their oar in first, but The Mail et al followed close behind and, in true Guardian style, their repeated meta-media pieces and comments were a sneaky way of giving an old fashioned tabloid mudsling some intellectual mileage.
The story ran and ran because it was seeded out in stages as effectively as if it had been planned by an expert: first he was a criminal, then he was a wifebeater, then he was going to have to return the money, then ITV admitted it was powerless.
Cowell was furious- he’s now gone on record stating that he wishes he could force Hageman to give the money to his victim. Syco and ITV took action pretty fast, and banned an undisclosed two contestants from taking part in two of the subsequent shows after speedy background checks. But like all good seeds, this obviously started conversation: the figures role to 5.4m on the Monday, and Tuesday would most likely have seen a similar rise had the show been on air. Following the show’s return, freed from controversy, figures have hovered around the mediocre five million mark.
Of course there were plenty of legal considerations behind ITV’s decision not to ride the negative publicity wave, but what we also saw was the outcome of a conflict between personal and professional PR. Simon Cowell’s TV properties are big gaudy freakshows, tabloid festivals- that’s undeniable. As a consequence, they’ve always been boosted and emboldened by negative publicity storms.
The X Factor 2010 Katie Waissel and Chloe Mafia revelations- driven by the dual tabloid engines of cocaine and prostitution- were a major part of its record breaking success. Cowell knows this- in some cases, including Katie’s, contestants with personal controversies have also come under flak in the periodical newspaper accusations about Syco grooming talent.
Yet Cowell’s personal PR rests on a degree of sincerity: a respected business man who, onscreen and off, is a sober, heartfelt counterpoint to the celebrity carnival all around him. His condemnation of Hageman today began with a defence of the decision to allow criminals on the show if their crimes weren’t so heinous: according to Cowell, it’s practically a social enterprise, designed to ‘give the money to someone who deserved it and needed some help’.
Nobody necessarily believes Cowell’s studied sincerity, but that doesn’t matter. Cowell’s personal profile needs to remain high to complicate the brashness of X Factor and its stablemates- it’s part of what tempers the glitz and keeps them at ‘guilty pleasure’ level for the middle class commentariat.
Cowell has demonstrated once again that he’s a master of the long game: no short term ratings boost is worth the unstoppable slide of a personal PR disaster.